Storyboard is a citizen reporting project focused on multilingual families and students who are learning English. Members of Storyboard are teachers, parents, experts and students across San Diego County exploring ways to improve outcomes for students. Storyboard is a joint project of Voice of San Diego and New America California.


It was the first day of third grade, and students at my elementary school in Redwood City had just returned from summer break. My friend Fernanda had only been in the United States for about a year, and because she struggled to speak English, I spoke to her in Spanish.

storyboardFernanda and I both stood at an intersection of language and culture. I was simply further along. Because I attended a bilingual elementary school since I was in kindergarten, I could speak both English and Spanish.

I’d just given Fernanda a friendship bracelet when our teacher interrupted.

“Don’t talk to her in Spanish,” the teacher told me. “It is not allowed. You can only speak English at school now.”

We Stand Up for You. Will You Stand Up for Us?

Those are words etched in my memory, along with a sense of shame toward my native language and culture. Spanish was my first language, but I came to understand that my school saw it as a limitation. For me, finding academic success meant leaving my language and culture behind.

For 18 years, state law in California restricted bilingual education and taught students like me that knowing two languages was a disadvantage. In November, those restrictions were lifted. Now, as school districts across the state grapple with whether to expand bilingual education, they have the chance to show students they don’t have to give up their identity and native language to find success in school.

Parents at my school had the option of enrolling their children in an English-only classroom or a bilingual one.

My parents wanted me to be educated in both languages. In the third grade, however, my school decided to cut off the bilingual program, and all students would only learn to read and write in English.

One day, I was taught to be proud of being bilingual and the next, I was told I could only learn and speak English at school.

I began to lose my language, and I struggled to integrate into an English-only taught classroom.

Because English wasn’t my first language, I was labeled as an English-learner. I would have to step out of class sometimes to meet with someone for additional help or additional testing.

Even though, at 8 years old, I didn’t completely understand what this meant, I didn’t like having to be separated from my classmates. I felt embarrassed, so I was determined to catch up.

I put everything I knew about the Spanish language aside, and I committed myself to only speaking English at school and even at home.

I soon began to struggle to speak to my aunts, uncles, grandmas and grandpas in Spanish. To this day, I avoid long conversations with family members who only speak Spanish because I struggle to hold a conversation.

After the third grade, I was at the top of my classes. I stood out from my other classmates for the rest of elementary school. My teachers told my parents I was outstanding.

But as I entered sixth grade, my parents decided to enroll me in a K-8 school up in the hills called Roy Cloud. This was the wealthier side of Redwood City, where most of the population was white. At Roy Cloud, I would be separated from my elementary school friends.

I had been on the waiting list for three years, but when it came time to switch schools, I begged my parents not to move me to a place where I knew no one. Over and over, they told me it was the best choice for my education. They told me I would one day thank them.

When I stepped onto the middle school campus, I immediately felt out of place. Kids had rolling backpacks because they had so many books. They dressed differently. They spoke differently.

Most students didn’t have the same skin color as me.

Right away, I noticed the school seemed to determine students’ academic potential based on how well they spoke English.

Sixth grade students at this school were divided into three classes: the lower, the middle and the upper level. The upper level included the advanced students, the middle included the proficient ones and the lower level included the students who needed extra help. The lower-level class included most of the Latinos who attended the school. I was one of three Latinos in the middle level.

I started to fail all my classes. I hid it from my classmates because I knew they would think I was dumb, and I especially didn’t tell my parents I was struggling because they thought I was exceptional.

I began to feel ashamed of my culture and background because kids like me weren’t taught the way the kids at this middle school were taught.

When my parents saw my first report card and GPA – barely above a 1.0 – they were so confused. My previous teachers had labeled me as “outstanding.” They didn’t understand.

I told them it was because I hated the school. And that was true. But I hated it because I didn’t know as much as the other kids. They were more organized. They asked questions. They hardly ever disrupted class, and they understood the material. They had better teachers.

I detested the feeling of not being smart enough. I would get pulled out of class into the library with other students, most of whom were Latino.

I had to go through additional testing, and that made me feel embarrassed.

I was determined to catch up, but it wasn’t because I wanted good grades. I wanted to prove that I could be at that school and be as smart as the other kids.

I had tutoring and dedicated most of my time to homework, ignoring other extracurricular activities.

I struggled the rest of my sixth grade year, but by seventh grade, I made the honor roll, where I stayed for the rest of middle school.

I’d done it. I assimilated into their education system and their environment. But in return, I had left behind my culture and the pride of being a Latina.

My parents told me I would one day thank them for pushing me to attend that middle school. I do, and I don’t.

I thank them for helping me obtain the education I deserved. I don’t know if I would be at San Diego State studying journalism today if I had gone to the middle schools my elementary school friends attended. I don’t know if I would have been as determined as I am today if I hadn’t fallen behind.

But, at Roy Cloud, there was not a day where I did not feel self-conscious because of the way I looked or where I came from. I call the school “that middle school” because I can’t call it “my middle school.” I didn’t feel accepted.

I wish I could speak Spanish as well as I used to and was more connected to my ethnicity and culture.

I thank my parents for enrolling me both at Roosevelt and Roy Cloud because my eyes were opened to the injustice in the education system.

Children are left behind because of where they live. If they don’t live in a wealthy area, they aren’t given the sufficient resources they need to succeed at their schools. They aren’t taught in the proper environment that motivates them to reach for their goals.

Even children who speak more than one language are taught to prioritize one of them. Because their capability to learn is measured by how well they can speak English, they are stripped of the chance to find academic success in two languages. A child should not have to choose to give up either a proper education or their identity, and a parent shouldn’t have to choose that for their child either.

I, along with my elementary school friends, deserved to have the education that set us up to succeed and deserved to be proud of where we came from at the same time.

Jocelyn Moran is a journalism student at San Diego State University. She is originally from the Bay Area, and hopes to pursue writing and other forms of journalism in the future. 

    This article relates to: Education, English-Learners

    Written by Jocelyn Moran

    Fotis Tsimboukakis
    Fotis Tsimboukakis subscribermember

    1) You lose your culture and language because you don't care about it to keep it, SPECIALLY if you belong to one of the ethnic and language groups that even have voting materials translated in their language. Groups that are in the hundreds of thousands here. As an immigrant, in a small community of my ethnicity, I've kept my language and taught it to my kids as their second language just fine. I still cook my ethnic food, watch plenty of my ethnic TV on Dish, drink my ethnic coffee, attend my ethnic cultural events AND my country of origin is 8,000 miles away.  

    2) Like it or not, business in the US is conducted in English and failing to gain good command of the English language hurts one, more than benefits, professional progress and advancement. This failure has cost many people I know a better career and a better economic life. 

    I am an immigrant, as I said, I am a Democrat, but also use common sense. We are here cause we figured out it's a better place than where we came from so we should do the things that made this place better to entice us here, AND RESPECT IT.  Please feel free to use COMMON SENSE too, INSTEAD of excuses.

    pogimbo T
    pogimbo T

    This is utter nonsense. You are in the United States. You speak English. Your parents came here NOT because it was exactly the same as home but because it was different. This country works because everyone gave up their ancient hatreds, feuds, and customs and adopted a common culture. Do you want to keep a Mexican identity and live in a Mexican community and speak Spanish? Live in Mexico. Ditto any other community. The country will only survive if the people who are here want to be in this country, not just another version of where they came from.

    And by the way, imagine the difference if you didn't use the same alphabet like Poles or Japanese, or spoke a language based on intonation.

    Mario Koran
    Mario Koran author

    @pogimbo T Every year in San Diego the number of parents applying to send their kids to quality language schools outnumbers the seats they have available. Plenty of parents want their kids to pick up another language. And that's true, especially, for white parents. 

    Janet Shelton
    Janet Shelton subscriber

    @pogimbo T Well, it is not either/or.  People can learn English but also speak their own language. I love the enrichment of other cultures and it has been going on since this country was founded.  Should we outlaw Little Italy/China/Japan and force all residents to speak only standard American (defined how and by whom)?  No foreign food, languages, dress?  And of course, only welcome white English speaking immigrants.  My heritage is Scotch, Irish, English, Cherokee, Swiss.  They were all a bunch of poor people who weren't welcomed at the time.

    And no, none of them or other immigrants came here to be turned into cookie cutter white protestants.  They came for opportunity and hoped to belong and to keep important parts of their culture.  The English outlawed kilts.  Many countries required all to adopt the state religion. Is that who we are?  Do you think the melting pot was just a silly myth or only for melting white people who speak English?

    Oscar Ramos
    Oscar Ramos subscribermember

    @pogimbo T That common culture you're talking about is constantly infused with the language, food, and culture of each succeeding wave of immigration, and I welcome it. No one is arguing that people shouldn't learn English. The point is that learning English shouldn't come at the cost of suppressing one's native language and culture. As a country we stand to benefit from our immigrant communities becoming full members of their adopted homes while maintaining their cultural identities and ties to their countries of origin, particularly as we seek solutions to international problems. 

    Janet Shelton
    Janet Shelton subscriber

    I grew up in Appalachia.  When I went away to college, I endured endless humiliation because of the way I spoke, and this did not change in graduate school or in the workplace.  I wrote in standard English, but I spoke a mix of that and the dialect I grew up with.  Very few people understand what a dialect is and if you use it in another geographic area, treat you like you are stupid.  But yes, Appalachians speak in a dialect.  They were isolated and their language changed differently than much of America.  Many elements of English from centuries ago were retained.

    In any case, I learned to speak only standard English and lost my accent because it gets really old to be laughed at every time you open your mouth.  My uncle who has a PhD in physics, retained his accent and he said that when he got up to speak at professional groups, he often heard tittering.  

    To this day, when I am in a group of well-educated people and tell them where I am from, I look at the time to see how long it takes to hear an incest joke.  At least half the time I get one within two minutes.  And if I say anything, they are "just joking" and have no clue that it is offensive.  And gosh, people feel free to talk about how ignorant rednecks are, etc. as if all residents of Southern and border states are exactly alike.  And don't care that they are telling me that my family and friends are all awful.

    These experiences have given me a better understanding than most of how people from other cultures are treated.  It's sad to see the richness of culture lost.  Appalachians have the most creative and colorful speech I have found in this country,  Through our history, there have always been outsiders, blacks, Italians, Irish, Scots, Hispanics. We could learn from these cultures, but it seems to be the nature of most people to want immigrants and outsiders to drop their cultural attributes and become generic.  I deeply sympathize with Jocelyn and all the people who must make those hard choices.  I recommend that she hold on to as much of it as she can because, yes, it is her identity. 

    John H Borja
    John H Borja subscriber

    The lessons we learned as teachers in the late 1980's all the way to the "advent" of Prop. 227 are still relevant today.  It really doesn't matter if a child begins to read in one language by kindergarten, that child will acquire, easily, the second language because the "how to's" are virtually the same. Also being bilingual in Southern California is a big plus as a commercial skill later in life.